This season, Europe has been home to an abundance of exciting and successful attacking football.
In England, both Manchester clubs have excelled with increasingly cohesive midfield and forward lines. Elsewhere, Barcelona have been rejuvenated in La Liga, while Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain top the charts in Germany, Italy and France respectively thanks in the main to their exceptional potency in front of goal.
Well-structured attacking play has dominated, and many individual stars are thriving within this environment. At the heart of it all are the playmaking midfielders, with Kevin De Bruyne, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Isco and Mario Götze grabbing plenty of headlines.
However, are those four among the most creative midfielders in Europe this season? We at Football Whispers answer that question here, ranking the top ten players in this category – no wingers allowed – from the 2017/18 campaign thus far.
To do so, we have taken into account a number of statistics such as assists, key passes, key through balls, successful dribbles and forward pass percentage, and we have only considered the continent’s traditional major five leagues – the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, the German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1.
10. GONZALO CASTRO (BORUSSIA DORTMUND)
Dortmund have been revitalised since former Ajax boss Peter Bosz took charge. They have won six of seven Bundesliga games to top the table by five points, scoring an incredible three goals per game on average. While others such as the aforementioned Götze, Christian Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are the stars of the team, Castro is the unsung hero.
The versatile German has fitted neatly into the outer central midfield roles in the team’s new-look 4-3-3 system, where his intelligence and movement help to build out from the back and progress attacks.
Only four players analysed for this list have averaged more than his 0.8 assists per 90 minutes, while he has also contributed an impressive 2.2 key passes per game.
9. RADJA NAINGGOLAN (ROMA)
One unfortunate defeat at home to Inter Milan aside, Roma have been imperious throughout their start to the Serie A campaign. New head coach Eusebio Di Francesco has implemented his favoured 4-3-3 shape with lots of dynamic wing play, though midfield warrior Nainggolan remains integral.
The Belgian has arguably been his team’s most valuable player over the last two seasons, and this looks set to continue.
So far this term he has averaged 1.6 dribbles and 1.2 key passes, while he has also played 0.6 key through balls per 90 minutes.
8. ANDRÉS GUARDADO (REAL BETIS)
Betis have been intriguing to watch at the beginning of this season. Quique Setién has arrived from Las Palmas and he’s brought highly watchable football with him. Having shocked Real Madrid with a last-gasp 1-0 away win, they have also thrashed Levante 5-0 and drew 4-4 away to Real Sociedad.
Guardado may not be the stand-out, but his positional awareness, versatility and efficient passing are part of what makes the teams ‘juego de posicion’ approach so effective.
The Mexican has been responsible for 1.1 assists per 90 minutes played, while his emphasis on progression is clear with 59 per cent of his passes moving attacks forward.
7. JEAN SERI (NICE)
Having been discussed as a Barcelona transfer target over the summer, it would have been understandable had Seri’s head been turned. However, he has started this campaign in the same outstanding form that led to such speculation in the first place.
Capable of jaw-dropping ingenuity, he is a first-rate creator. He combines a superlative touch with a strong physique, and is just as able to thread a perfectly-weighted through ball as he is to rampage through midfield
. No-one on this list averages more key passes, and few complete more dribbles per 90 minutes.
6. MIRALEM PJANIĆ (JUVENTUS)
Paulo Dybala’s ten goals in six league games have led to increasing chatter regarding the Argentine’s quality, though perhaps it’s time for a similar discussion about Pjanić’s abilities. The Bosnian has always been seen as a sub-elite playmaker, but his displays this term suggest he too has gone up a level.
The 27-year-old tends to sit at the base of central midfield for Juventus. From there, he can see more of the pitch and become more involved in the construction of attacks, making full use of his sublime technique and passing range.
It’s telling that 64.6 per cent of Pjanić’s passes have been forward ones, while few in Europe can claim to better his record of one assist per 90 minutes.
5. LUIS ALBERTO (LAZIO)
It looks likely that this season there may be a serious Serie A title race for the first time in many years. And Lazio, while underdogs, are currently in the equation thanks to five wins and one draw from their opening seven games.
Luis Alberto has been key to this run of form, contributing in several different ways to his team’s attacking play.
The former Liverpool man is a Spaniard who once spent time in Barcelona’s ‘B’ team, so it’s not surprising that he is a gifted technician. And he has put his qualities to good use in a relatively fluid midfield role in Italy this term, averaging 1.7 key passes and 1.9 successful dribbles.
On top of that, no other creative midfielder in Europe’s major leagues plays a higher amount of forward passes than his 69.6 per cent.
4. PAUL POGBA (MANCHESTER UNITED)
Those who felt Pogba underwhelmed during his first season back in English football weren’t watching closely enough.
The Frenchman demonstrated his maverick attacking talents when given the chance, but he was too often restricted by the negative tactics of his manager, José Mourinho.
However, this season he has been given greater creative license and looks settled with the defensive protection offered by Nemanja Matic’s arrival.
Whether in a three or two-man central midfield, the playmaker is making full use of the pace and skill around him to exploit space and create chances.
In four league outings he has averaged a fine two key passes, while few on this list have completed more than his 3.3 dribbles per 90 minutes.
Currently out injured, once he’s back and fully fit Pogba could well become Manchester United’s driving force in midfield.
3. HENRIKH MKHITARYAN (MANCHESTER UNITED)
Mkhitaryan’s story was almost exactly the same as Pogba’s – he arrived to great expectations, but suffered due to his manager’s tactical decision-making and in his case selection choices, only to finally flourish this season.
He is now displaying the verve and imagination that made him one of the Bundesliga’s best players during his time with Dortmund.
Of all the players considered for this list, few were as consistent across the board, with the Armenian nestling inside the top five for assists, key passes and key through balls per 90 minutes.
Clearly, he has responded well to being given a more influential attacking midfield role by Mourinho.
2. DAVID SILVA (MANCHESTER CITY)
De Bruyne’s match-winning goal for Manchester City against Chelsea was stunning and deserved the plaudits it received. Yet, while David Silva went under the radar again, his performance was arguably even more decisive.
The Spaniard’s searching blind-side movement, combination play and precise passing were vital, just as they have been throughout the season so far.
At 31 years of age, he continued to prove one of the most effective creators in Europe, and his impact has not been dimmed by a more withdrawn role in Pep Guardiola’s side.
You want evidence? No other player on this list has made more than his 2.5 key passes per 90 minutes, while only two have averaged more assists per game.
1. NABY KEÏTA (LIVERPOOL, ON LOAN AT RB LEIPZIG)
The 22-year-old is truly unique. Dynamic, energetic and refined, he can break the lines in multiple different ways. He has averaged a remarkable 0.8 key through balls, which shows he can play incisive passes.
He has also averaged a stunning 5.3 dribbles per game, which shows he can just as easily drive through pressure single-handedly.
Anfield is understandably impatient for Keita’s arrival.
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), Isco (Real Madrid), Adem Ljajić (Torino), Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio), Mesut Özil (Arsenal), Gastón Ramírez (Sampdoria), Nuri Şahin (Dortmund), Jonathan Viera (Las Palmas), Daniel Wass (Celta Vigo).